Mid-year through our blog's journey, I find myself having read five (more) books about the gloriously fucked up inner lives of girls and women. So it goes. I'm becoming an expert.
After reading her most recent novel, The Mare, I added Mary Gaitskill to my library list, so now I've read three of her earlier books. (Have I mentioned how amazing the L.A. public library is? Shouts out to the L.A. public library.) Gaitskill writes from the complex interior of feminine shame and desire like no one I've ever read. She traces the outlines of her characters' blind spots with a degree of dispassion that repels sentimentality and an attention to detail that prohibits cliche. It's an intimate experience to read her, particularly because she writes about sexual situations in a way that draws attention to the privacy of the experience of reading itself, and the unique space that is created in the process of meeting a writer in her world to co-create the experience of the story.
Bad Behavior is her first book, a collection of short stories that includes the basis for the film Secretary. For a debut, the voice and perspective are incredibly assured, and her insight into the subtlety of relationships, both between people and within oneself, is deep. Her second book, Two Girls Fat and Thin is a novel that shares a lot of themes and settings with the short stories, but plays with narrative and time in a much more ambitious way, which makes it feel like more than just a long version of what came before. This book also has some of the best-observed "life in New York" passages I've ever read. In these passages Gaitskill manages to distill the epic dance of privacy and publicity, solitude and community, control and chaos, culture and savagery, absurdity and gravity, illusion and disillusionment into a few gestures that say it all. Third, I read Veronica, another novel, ruminative and acidic, without the whispers of hope and heart that made the other books funnier and sadder.
I also read two older books (1962 and 1955) that explore female power and fear in ways that could be considered in the family line of Gaitskill. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a short novel told from the first person point of view of an adolescent girl who's a weird limb of a withering aristocratic family tree being threatened by an increasingly emboldened township of common folk. The story casts an spell of low-grade horror that's both intriguing and unsettling, so you could probably read this book as an allegory for the slow-motion weird-world horror/suspense of adolescence itself.
Bonjour Tristesse is the first novel by a French writer named Francoise Sagan. She wrote it at eighteen, and the subject, writing from the first person about recent events, is not much older. The setting is lush and glamorous with cigarette smoke and salt air and convertibles, so it's a little like Don Draper and daughter in France, but if the daughter was the the one with the Draperish manipulative skill and lack of moral center. Short, summery and linear, it's a commendable beach read.